9 Muses: Maronne Cruz, Diwata of Theater
"I'm not very good with words, ironically, because all I do is read other peoples' words," laughs Maronne Cruz, as she mulls over "the perfect mic-dropping way" to deliver her piece of advice for her Diwata Card. I soon learn this is a telling statement that reveals her humility and slight perfectionism, a young woman who speaks freely yet considers her suggestions thoughtfully. Maronne is the first in our "9 Muses of the Arts" series, a collaboration with Jodinand Aguillon (artistic director of HATAW and actual creative genius) and shot in Manila at Pineapple Lab. Inspired by the "Siyam na Diwata ng Sining/Nine Muses of the Arts" sculpture by Napoleon Abueva at UP Diliman and goddess/oracle cards, this series re-envisions modern Pilipina muses as "Diwata Cards" which can be pulled for words of advice for those seeking inspiration. I've asked each of the women interviewed for the series to share their experiences, their career paths, and their work, and been blown away by the incredible creativity and wisdom each has revealed. These conversations constantly reinforce what I already know as fact in my heart - that even when faced with paralyzing adversity, Pinays are endless sources of originality and forces of change.
Born in San Francisco but raised in Manila, Maronne is an accomplished theater and film actor who's also dabbled in costume design. Surprisingly, she actually graduated with a degree in business management, but it was also during her days at Ateneo de Manila University where she truly fell in love with performing. Since she graduated less than four short years ago, she's already starred in some major theater productions including Ako si Josephine, a musical using the pop-rock hits of singer-songwriter Yeng Constantino; Sa Wakas, a critically-acclaimed musical that turns the songs of beloved Pilipinx indie band Sugarfree into a very unformulaic love story; and done a ton of TV commercials (that's her voice in the new Jollibee Langhap Sarap jingle). Extremely humble, she attributes a lot of her success to luck, and stresses the importance of teamwork and being a good coworker (absolutely no diva-like behavior to be found here). "I never knew my skill level," she says, "I never knew I was good or whatever, but then I heard that people were impressed and were interested in my performance because I was different from the other auditions."
Truly chameleon-like, her voice changing from husky to chirpy in a span of seconds, Maronne is super animated, cracking jokes and laughing a lot, with a bit of sarcastic and self-depricating humor. Her extremely versatile look makes itself apparent as she magically transforms from a Manila cool girl into an literal video game fairy, from her sky blue lips down to her rhinestone-encrusted rainbow nails. With two palm leaves in her hair secured in place by steel styling clips and clad in a lacy crushed-velvet gown, something about her reminds me of Rihanna's infamous doobie wrap look from the 2013 AMA's - polished and glamorous, but with some very unexpected edges. This actually feels close to her work as an actor, as she aims to showcase the diversity of women and show that you can be weird or awkward and still play the lead. She really embraces the qualities that make her different, and what she strives to portray through her work clearly comes from a genuine place.
Read on as we bond over Queen, anime, and cosplay, over not fitting into a traditional mold, and about wanting to represent the diversity of Pinays through different mediums. Maronne also discusses the rise of original Pilipinx material that highlights the unique strengths of modern Pilipinas, and how the definition of femininity is currently being challenged through the stage.
Hella Pinay: How did you get involved in theater?
Maronne: I was raised watching theater shows. Ever since I was a kid, my dad (when he was alive) would take us to New York almost every year and we would watch a whole lot of Broadway shows. It was natural for me to fall in love with it.
I was never really an actor or singer, I just loved theater, until I eventually decided to try out for Ateneo Blue Repertory in college. So it was only in college when I truly fell in love with it. I'd always liked singing but I was never public about it. It was only in college where it was like, You know what, let's join an org, let's see, and so it all went downhill from there. [pause] Downhill talaga?? Uphill! Joke lang! I started performing from there.
When you were young, did you see yourself becoming an actor?
NEVER. I was such a wallflower!! I nearly said wallpaper [laughs] because it was getting there, it was beyond wallflower. I was wallpaper! I was a weird kid, I was so self-conscious and didn't want attention. I wanted it but I was like, Oh my god, people are going to judge me. I think most performers start out that way. I started out as an illustrator, that was my first dream. I wanted my own anime, I love anime. And then it was only when people started telling me, You knowwwww, you can do theater! You're pretty good! that I actually started to get encouraged to keep continuing it.
What was your first major role?
It was for a musical called We Will Rock You based off the songs of Queen. I was the lead character, her name was Scaramouche [sings lines from Bohemian Rhapsody] and she was this tough, sarcastic chick which was super super up my alley and that was so much fun. It's a role that's still so close to my heart, like I even use her name as my gaming handles now and then! And I didn't know I had a shot at getting the lead until I actually got it and I was like, Oh my god, I have what it takes. And so I use that to just keep going and going, and I've gotten good roles, like surprisingly good roles. I've done ensemble work as well, because I feel ensemble work is very important - it teaches you some of the most important stuff about working in a theater company and being a good artist, being a good coworker most of all. Ensemble work is being part of the chorus, which is a different challenge altogether. There's a lot of teamwork that comes into play. You have to stick out and blend in at the same time, and it's tough.
What are your particularly proud of in your career so far?
The part of my work that I think I'm the proudest of and would like to stick to is that I'm realllllllyyyy good at doing alternative material within the mainstream theater realm...like I did Ako si Josephine which is a Yeng Constantino musical. I'm really good at OPM [Original Pilipino Music] and rock musicals, and at portraying nontraditional female heroines, or taking a heroine and giving her an interesting twist - and that's actually what I've kinda been focusing on in my career. If I'm going to act, I want to show people, not just other girls, that you can be a strong female character but also not the typical description of a strong female character - you can be kinda weird, you can be clumsy, you can be awkward - there's not just one way of being a strong woman. There's nuances. And you don't need to be an ingenue type either. I really like that I get to show people a diverse set of female characters through my work - and that being an actress doesn't always mean being pretty and shit. [laughs]
How do you deal with the whole "you have to look a certain way to be an actor" thing?
I use my quirks to my advantage. I never try to fall into a "type" that I know isn't me - so in junction with what I'm trying to do with my career, I really try to use the fact that I look kind of "character" to my advantage. So far that's helped me, because so far I've gotten most of the roles that I've wanted to go for. So I never grew my hair long, I don't dress girly. I don't feel like it. I don't try to fit into any particular mold that I think I might need to adjust to.
How do you feel about the current roles available for women in theater?
It's not necessarily the norm [now] but I did notice that there used to be a time when most of the materials that were being mounted were Western - meaning people just bought the rights to Western material and restaged them here - and the kind of material that was being brought in didn't really showcase the most diverse set of female characters. I mean, there were strong female characters, but they weren't as diverse - they were always like "strong princesses" or "strong refined women." I think it used to be that way and it was hard for me to get work for a long time, because you know I definitely don't fit into any traditional mold so to speak. Thankfully now, original Filipino musicals like Rak of Aegis, Ako si Josephine, Sa Wakas - a lot of original Filipino material is coming out that highlights the strength of the Filipino woman, which is different...and is about turning [the Maria Clara stereotype] around. Because the modern day Filipina woman is very spunky, she's not the "Maria Clara." I think the dalagang pilipina [exists] not in the mahinhin way, but in the way that she's still very noble at heart. But that doesn't mean she has to be like "oh..." [covers her mouth with the back of her hand, giggles and feigns shyness] presenting a certain way. We have range, we're not just one thing or the other. The definition of femininity is being challenged through a lot of the characters that you see in the plays that are being staged right now. Even in Western musicals, you have a lot of interesting new female characters - and that's one of the things that I really like about theater and the stage.
What were some inspirations growing up that stuck with you?
[gets excited] OK! There's this Broadway musical that isn't the most popular, but it really stuck with me because I really like the main character, called Annie Get Your Gun. That stuck with me! That's like the ONLY female Broadway character that I really really loved when I was a little girl because I loved that she was tomboyish, she was clumsy. She was someone I could really relate to - she was so spunky, she was so brave, but she was still vulnerable at the same time. Another body of work that really stuck to me was [the film] Girl, Interrupted - so it's characters like those, super-duper complex and maybe a bit ya know [laughs], a little bit off-tangent talaga...those kinds of characters, they hit close to home.
How do your parents feel about your acting career?
You know what initially, they were a little doubtful because there's no denying that going the business route here is a foolproof way to a stable life. But they're still always proud of my work. They never told me to stop ever or discouraged me. My parents are always like, OK, you can try theater but maybe you can try this or that course too - they're always encouraging me to diversify, which is a good thing. So that way, I'm not limited to just one path. I like that I'm multidisciplinarian. I love it when people ask me, Did you study theater? NO, I studied business management. I believe that if you wanna study acting, you should also study different schools of thought because you bring those into the character. Because you're representing real people, representing different kinds of real knowledge.
Are you interested in creating through other mediums?
I used to write a lot, but I lost that skill. I think for now I'm happy with just bringing other people's words to life. For now. You never know. Because I'm a very visual person, I'd rather bring something to life through something you can see than through something you can read or hear - so if I were to create something, it would be something visual.
How do you research and prepare for a role?
I'm actually very big on text work. I do as much research as possible without distracting from making a performance my own. And I really drown myself in the script. I really look at the words and say, oh there's a reason she said that or there's a reason she said it this way instead of another way. I'm very like that. But also I try to think of like, what dimensions can I add to this particular scene that will make it not so predictable? That will make it more interesting, more human to watch, stuff like that. So I'm actually pretty cerebral when I'm doing my homework, but then for some reason whenever I'm actually rehearsing I throw all of that away and then it's actually all just how I feel. So I'm still trying to figure out the balance between that, but other than that I try to change my physicality - for example, for Sa Wakas, I had to change the way I walked, I had to change the way I stood because I'm kind of a clunky like [ahhhh] awkward person - and Gabbi was awkward, but she was also a cosmopolitan woman - so I had to exude a certain kind of refinement that I really had to work on.
I would like to try exploring characters that are completely different from myself or access a different realm of my personality, because we always bring at least 10% of ourselves into any character we play. So I'd like to explore more characters that brings out sides of me that people don't know are there, since they've already seen that I can do these spunky, quirky characters.
Do you feel like you learn about yourself through portraying other people?
[exhales] Of course. Absolutely. I learn about myself and about the world, because there's always something to be learned from the choices these different characters make. From the mistakes that they've made and their stories. That's one of my favorite things about being an actor, it's that we get to help people learn...about life, about being human, through different characters that make mistakes and how they cope with them, how they deal with their surroundings, how they deal with larger issues that face them.
What do you have in the works now?
I'm working on a rerun of GODSPELL, it ran in Manila last year to great success and mixed reviews [laughs] and there's a rerun that's going into rehearsals this April. We all play ourselves; it's a montage of parables, so we become the parable characters when necessary, but other than that we're just ourselves. Singing different songs of praise and enlightenment. It's going to be in RCBC, one of the most used theaters [in Manila], it's here lang in Makati.
As a "muse," what advice do you have for others looking for inspiration?
If you feel like you don't fit in, that is exactly your strength - so use it! Use your quirks to your advantage.